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FIRST-PERSON: A bigger issue than terrorism or the economy

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–This presidential election is about answering big questions about the war on terrorism, exit strategies (or lack thereof) for the Iraq war, healthcare, the domestic economy and protecting traditional marriage.

But those are not the most important issues facing Americans in the long term.

I am choosing between Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush because of Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which says: “[The President] … by and with Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint … Judges of the Supreme Court.”

Consider this:

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is 80 years old. President Richard Nixon nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1972. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens is 84 years old. President Gerald Ford nominated him in 1975.

Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is 74 years old. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 71 years old. Both have had bouts with cancer during their tenure on the Supreme Court.

By the time Americans have another opportunity to cast votes for president, four of the 12 current Supreme Court justices will be older than 75. One of them will be approaching 90.

Factoring in how long these justices have served, the next presidential Supreme Court appointments will impact our nation’s laws for the next 20-40 years. Here are just a few of the issues that will come before the Supreme Court in the near and distant future:

— Whether same-sex “marriages” recognized in one state must be recognized in states that have adopted Defense of Marriage Acts.

— Whether partial-birth abortions can be banned or restricted.

— Whether a president’s powers to fight terrorism are the same as his powers to wage war.

— Whether tax laws prohibiting churches from political campaigning are an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech.

— Whether laws prohibiting public denunciation of homosexual behavior are constitutional. You may wonder what I am talking about here. Canada already has prosecuted pastors for preaching against homosexuality. If you think there are no towns, cities, counties or states in America poised or eager to pass similar laws, you are fooling yourself.

I completely agree that people the age of our current justices can be effective in the workplace. Let us be realistic, though. There are factors other than age that I am weighing as I look at these justices in particular.

In the midst of writing this column, the news came that Chief Justice Rehnquist has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I have prayed for his family and his recovery. I know from personal experience how tragic it is when a loved one is diagnosed with any form of cancer.

As a lawyer and a voter, other thoughts come to mind. It is now more possible than ever that the next president will appoint four new justices to the Supreme Court, including the appointment of America’s 17th chief justice.

Do we want John Kerry elevating Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who reportedly changed his vote at the last minute in a recent case that could have overturned Roe v. Wade? Do we want John Kerry nominating for chief justice someone like Bill or Hillary Clinton? (It is often said that she wants to be president, but who knows what she might do if a Supreme Court appointment were dangled in front of her?) Do we want John Kerry to appoint one of the judges from the supreme court of his home state of Massachusetts who ordered the state legislature to allow same-sex marriage last year?

Or do we want George W. Bush making those appointments? I can imagine him elevating either Associate Justice Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas to chief justice, thereby giving control of the behind-the-scenes Supreme Court machinations to someone of impeccable conservative credentials.

Although there is no guarantee that a Republican president will appoint conservative justices — look at President Nixon’s appointment of Harry A. Blackmun, the author of Roe v. Wade — Republicans have been more likely to do so than Democrats. For example, compare President Reagan’s appointment of Antonin Scalia with President Clinton’s appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

So, if you or someone you know is undecided between John Kerry and George W. Bush, consider which one should exercise the U.S. Constitution’s Supreme Court appointment powers. The next president has a chance to set a course for this nation far into the future.
Brent Thompson is associate director for news and information at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Thompson practiced law for eight years in two different states and argued a case before the Alaska Supreme Court before attending seminary.

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  • Brent Thompson